WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans, blocked in their effort to pass a bill disapproving of the Iran deal, tried another tactic: Give President Barack Obama his nuclear deal, but only on the condition that Iran agree to recognize the state of Israel and release the four U.S. citizens it holds.
A problem with this strategy, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) brought to a vote on Thursday, is that some of America's strongest allies in the Middle East -- such GOP favorites as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- do not themselves recognize Israel.
So The Huffington Post asked Republican senators if they thought those Gulf states should also be required to recognize Israel in exchange for access to weapons, intelligence sharing or even nuclear secrets, to which the UAE is privy as the result of a 2009 deal.
"The deal's not with them, the deal's with Iran," said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the Republican leadership. "So that's where we have the leverage. That's why the leader thought this would be a good place to have that discussion, have that vote."
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, agreed that the U.S. was impotent as far as its Gulf state allies were concerned. "We don't control their policies in their countries. It's hard to do ours here," he said. (In an interview for a recent HuffPost profile of UAE Ambassador Yousef al Otaiba, Burr had said he meets frequently with the Gulf diplomat. "I've spent probably more time with Yousef than I have anybody," he said.)
As for linking security assistance with recognition of Israel, "I haven't heard that discussed," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).
"I'd need to think about it. I haven't thought about that," said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
In addition to linking congressional approval of the nuclear accord to Iran's recognition of Israel, McConnell's measure would have required the release of the four American prisoners currently held in Iran. While Secretary of State John Kerry said he pushed for the release of the four men at every meeting during the nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Obama administration insisted from the outset that the agreement be focused on constraining Iran's nuclear program.
One senator who represents the family of American prisoner Amir Hekmati slammed the McConnell amendment on Wednesday as "a transparent effort to score some cheap political points."
"It's appalling. No American should ever be used in this way," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), adding that she was in contact with Hekmati's family and members of the Obama administration who have been working to secure his freedom. "How does it show respect for Amir's mom and dad to use their son's plight and possibly threaten the negotiations that are going on now in order to make a partisan political point and jeopardize his release?"
Predictably, the amendment failed Thursday, with only one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, supporting it. Even he acknowledged the folly of the doomed-to-fail amendment. "I'm just disappointed we've digressed to this. There's nothing constructive about the vote we're taking, but I guess we're going to take it," he said.
With the exception of Manchin, even Senate Democrats who oppose the Iran nuclear accord moved to block the McConnell amendment.
"It's a cynical move that is bad for Israel," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the first in his party to denounce the nuclear deal and one of the biggest champions of the U.S.-Israel relationship. "McConnell's trying to make this partisan. And being partisan hurts Israel."
The cynicism of McConnell's gambit on Israel and the four American prisoners was apparent even to a member of his own party. "I'm not a fan of this strategy, by the way," Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told HuffPost, adding that he wouldn't support forcing Saudi Arabia's hand on the recognition of Israel either.
'I think we ought to vote. We ought to have a final vote," Flake said, referring to a vote on the main resolution to reject the Iran deal without McConnell's amendment. "The Democrats have offered to have a final vote with a 60-vote threshold -- we oughta take it."
"I'd rather not," echoed Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), asked if the Gulf states should be required to recognize Israel. "I like the way he's doing it," he said of McConnell's decision to single out Iran.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who is also a member of the Senate leadership, quickly recognized there was no good answer to the question. He simply laughed and walked away.
For Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the difference was one of degrees. While neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE recognizes Israel, Iran is much more insistent and explicit in its desire to destroy Israel. "No," McCain said of forcing recognition from the Gulf states, "because they're not threatening Israel. They're not calling for its extinction."
Indeed, the Gulf states and the Jewish state are de facto political allies here in Washington against the common enemy Iran. While just this week Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir warned against "aggressive moves by the Zionist enemy" that would be met by a concerted Arab response, the diplomat is known simply as Adel in Washington, where he counts many friends, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. (He is an Otaiba mentor.)
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei makes such talk from the Saudi foreign minister seem almost gentle. "God willing, in the next 25 years such a thing as the Zionist regime won't exist," he said recently.
But at least one Republican said he'd be just fine with insisting that the Gulf states recognize Israel in exchange for U.S. cooperation. "I think so. I've said that all along," offered Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.).
U.S. pressure could make the difference, he said. "I wouldn't put anything off the table."